Union election allows for dissent

The efforts to unionize graduate students at the University may have some unseen disadvantages.

by Kathryn — University Doctoral Candidate

I must respectfully disagree with the letter âÄúUniversity of Minnesota graduate students need and want a unionâÄù in the Jan. 23 Minnesota Daily. I am glad the University is allowing/requesting the election process.
I have been to as many events providing information regarding the unionization effort over the last 12 months as I could, seeking information about how a union could benefit me as a graduate assistant. That is, when I could find out when they were. You see, I have questions.
When I was first approached by unionization members, and I wasnâÄôt gung ho to sign on, I was in turn attacked, then ignored. It became difficult to find information about when they were holding organizational events and where. They seemed to actually take pains to exclude those with questions or dissenting opinions.
From what I have heard, collective bargaining and legal services are two major benefits the union could bring to graduate assistants. Legal services are already offered for free to all University students who pay student services fees.
Collective bargaining sounds nice, but how do you bargain for students across a range of disciplines whose salaries, benefits and working conditions vary greatly? We also have groups that advocate for us for changes in our benefits and working conditions already.
For example, look at what the Council of Graduate Students has accomplished in the past year: 1) providing health care to graduate students as part of the Graduate Assistant Employment policy, 2) a leave of absence policy for graduate students, allowing them to leave their program for up to two years for personal reasons without having to drop out of their program and reapply, or affecting their time-to-degree and 3) changing the legitimate absence policy to excuse students from class and duties because of an ill dependent.
These policy changes benefit not only graduate and teaching assistants but all graduate students.
A post-doctoral worker in my lab was a graduate student at Washington University when their students unionized. In the two years he was a union member, his yearly wage increases were decreased, and the union attempted to negotiate maximum work hours for duties like grading and lab work. The way their unionization rules worked, if you didnâÄôt pay the hundreds of dollars in dues to be a voting member, you were still required to donate that amount of money to a charitable cause and pay non-voting member dues.
While this is an isolated example, no union supporter has been able to answer these concerns of mine, nor have they tried. I have actually been yelled at and verbally abused by organizers for not supporting the unionization effort. I know fellow graduate students of mine who have felt harassed by those asking them to sign a card.
All in all, I have not been impressed by how the students leading this effort have handled it and have not had my questions answered. I have been in turn belittled and ignored as if my questions and opinion are not worth answering or hearing.
I, even though I am only one graduate assistant out of 4,500, am glad the University is letting me have a say in the matter.

The author of this guest column is a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota named Kathryn, who asked that her last name and department be withheld because of the potential for politically motivated retaliation. Please send comments to [email protected].